The Museum of the Bible, which opened to the public on November 17, is a $500-million monument to the world’s most popular book. Few artefacts capture the scripture’s timelessness more than the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known copies of Biblical text—which is why the museum’s founders are rumoured to have spent millions of dollars to obtain 13 of them for their collection.
However, research suggests that some of the fragments that visitors will encounter may be modern forgeries.
The spotlights on the Museum of the Bible burn especially bright. The museum’s founder Steve Green, who owns the Hobby Lobby craft chain, has faced intense public scrutiny for his company’s antiquities purchases, including 5,500 ancient clay tablets that U.S. authorities claim were illegally smuggled into the country. In July, Hobby Lobby reached a settlement on the tablets with the Department of Justice. The company has returned the artefacts to Iraq.
While some scholars have derided the museum for aggressive acquisition practices, Green and museum officials stress that they received poor advice in their early collecting days, and that the Museum of the Bible abides by academic best practices.
Widely respected Biblical scholar David Trobisch now directs the collection—and the Museum of the Bible has supported the very work on the Dead Sea Scrolls which has uncovered evidence of forgery.
“Anybody who thinks that in a gigantic museum that there’s going to be no item [with disputed authenticity], it’s like believing that there’s no amoeba in your water,” says New York University Biblical scholar Lawrence Schiffman, who consulted the museum on its presentation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “The museum did everything they’re supposed to do.”
IS THE WORD GOOD?
Discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in the caves of Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls consist of passages of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, that range from 1,800 to more than 2,000 years old. They comprise the oldest copies of Biblical text ever found. (See digital copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls.)
From 1947 to 1953, many of the scrolls were purchased from Bedouin by the local merchant Khalil Iskander Shahin (also known as Kando), who then sold them to collectors and academic institutions. But once the 1970 UNESCO convention on cultural property kicked in, the illicit excavation and selling of newfound scrolls was made illegal.
Today, many of the Dead Sea Scrolls—which total some 100,000 fragments—are housed in the Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The private market fights for the literal scraps grandfathered into current law, mostly pieces that entered private collections before 1970.
In the early 2000s, about 75 grandfathered-in fragments—most no bigger than large coins—were put up for sale, many by Kando’s relatives. At least 13 of the fragments were purchased by the Green family from 2009 to 2014. Many of these “post-2002” fragments aren’t academically revelatory: Their texts mirror content known from earlier Dead Sea Scrolls. Nevertheless, museums and private collectors jumped at the chance to claim physical ownership of some of the earliest known Biblical texts.
"Any reputable Bible museum almost has to have Dead Sea Scrolls," said Trobisch, the museum’s director, in an interview with CNN’s Daniel Burke.
At the time of these purchases, Schiffman says that the post-2002 fragments were largely considered authentic. But this consensus began to unravel in early 2016, when University of Leuven researcher Eibert Tigchelaar challenged the authenticity of several fragments held by Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen. Tigchelaar’s efforts quickly snowballed.
“It took a long time to come to the point where I became convinced… [that] a few of these are probably not authentic—at least a few,” says Kipp Davis, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert at Trinity Western University who has closely studied post-2002 fragments.
Schiffman and Davis note that while the field is now wary of forgeries, some highly respected scholars still believe the new fragments to be genuine. Schiffman says that at least a few of the post-2002 fragments must be real, since they fit into authentic Dead Sea Scrolls like puzzle pieces. (Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?)
In an interview with CNN, leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Emanuel Tov said that he doesn’t think the fragments are fake. "I will not say the Museum of the Bible has no inauthentic fragments," he said. "I will say I have not seen the proof."
Other scholars, however, err on the side of forgery. “I think that over 90 percent of the post-2002 fragments most probably are modern forgeries,” says University of Agder researcher Årstein Justnes, who leads the Lying Pen of Scribes project, which monitors the post-2002 fragments.
This Dead Sea Scroll-like fragment, one of 13 in the Museum of the Bible's collection, contains part of the Book of Genesis. At present, isn't one of the suspected forgeries. Like authentic Dead Sea Scrolls, its text runs in largely parallel lines, and its lettering marks the handiwork of a skilled scribe. - PHOTOGRAPH BY BRUCE AND KENNETH ZUCKERMAN AND MARILYN LUNDBERG, WEST SEMITIC RESEARCH, COURTESY MUSEUM OF THE BIBLE
DETECTIVES ON THE HUNT
If some of the Museum of the Bible's Dead Sea Scroll fragments are in fact forgeries, how did they come about?
For starters, while at least one post-2002 parchment fragment in another collection has reportedly been carbon-dated—a result that Davis finds suspicious—microscopic mistakes in the writing suggest that the ink was laid down in modern times. (Recently, archaeologists discovered blank parchment in one of the Dead Sea Scroll caves.)
In some examples Davis has examined from the Norwegian Schøyen Collection, ink sits atop the ancient parchment’s patina, or bleeds over the fragments’ tattered edges, as if the ink was laid down centuries or millennia later. One manuscript was even found covered in modern table salt, which forgers apparently used to mimic the salty crust on authentic Dead Sea Scrolls.
Research on the Museum of the Bible’s fragments continues; scholars took their first stab at them just last year, in a 236-page volume co-edited by Tov and Davis. Already, researchers supported by the museum, including Davis, have flagged possible signs of forgery in some of the museum’s fragments—including one currently on display.
In that fragment, a passage from the Book of Jonah, one Hebrew character is squeezed into a corner that wouldn’t have been there when the parchment was whole. The lines of text also seem to follow the contours of the fragment’s torn edges. “These [lines of text] are probably not authentic,” says Davis. “It looks more like the letters were applied to something that has already deteriorated.”
In a separate Museum of the Bible fragment that’s not currently on display, the Hebrew text—a portion of the Book of Nehemiah—is interrupted by what looks like the Greek letter alpha. The Greek letter appears in the same passage in a Hebrew Bible published in 1937; the character denotes a footnote.
In light of the ongoing scientific work, the museum has installed placards under each of the fragments now on display, which read:
“In 2002, dozens of previously known ‘Dead Sea Scroll’ fragments began appearing with antiquity dealers. Universities, museums, and private collectors acquired many of these ‘new’ fragments. As scholars began to study them, some noted puzzling features and labelled them as forgeries.
“[The Museum of the Bible] published the initial research on its scroll fragments in 2016, but scholarly opinions of their authenticity remain divided. Scientific analysis of the ink and handwriting on these pieces continues.”
Schiffman, who wrote the placard text, thinks the museum has done its job to be transparent with visitors. Now, it’s a matter of uncovering the fragments’ true origin story.
“What we need now is a detective,” he says.
Lead image: Visitors tour the "History of the Bible" exhibit during a media preview of the new Museum of the Bible, a museum dedicated to the history, narrative and impact of the Bible, in Washington, DC, November 14, 2017 - Photograph by Saul Loeb, AFP, Getty Images.